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Riki Ott

     ... marine biologist & toxicologist. Dr. Ott presents a new understanding of oil's toxicity to humans and wildlife in her book, Sound Truth and Corporate Myth$: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.  She presents evidence for long-term and continuing effects from the 1989 Exxon catastrophe when their oil tanker "Exxon Valdez" spilled between 11 and 40 millions gallons of oil into the pristine Prince William Sound, Alaska. Dr. Ott is active in her community, has testified often before Congress and the Alaska State Legislature, has received state and national recognition for her work and is also author of Alaska's Copper River Delta.


The "EXXON Valdez" oil spill was the "environmental 9/11," according to marine biologist and toxicologist, Riki Ott.  EXXON has effectively owned the story since then and says it's over, says Dr. Ott.  But she has evidence to the contrary that indicates everyone's public health is being adversely affected by very low levels of chemicals in our environment, levels well below what is currently thought to be safe. And a major culprit, she says, is oil.

Yes, oil spills are officially hazardous waste sites.  But few of us will ever work to clean up an oil spill, so what's the big deal? Put aside for a moment the ethical questions around the 11,000 workers potentially at risk from their work on Prince William Sound. In 1999, Dr. Ott reports, the United States Environmental Protection Agency included 22 PAHs found in crude oil on its list of things extremely hazardous to humans. The list also includes lead, dioxin, mercury, PCBs and DDT.

Here's where the story hits home.  More than 90% of the PAHs people encounter are not the result of oil spills, Dr. Ott found. They are the result of burning fossil fuels, what she calls poison that comes out of our cars' talepipes and out of power generation plants that burn coal or oil.  So Dr. Ott's reports from scientists studying the long-term effects of exposure to oil bears directly on us all, even before looking at the environmental devastation at Prince William Sound that she says is still very much in evidence.

Why don't we know these things? Dr. Ott describes a two-part covenant of silence.  She says the oil companies have persuaded judges that public knowledge of oil’s toxicity would hurt the economy so records are sealed.  And OSHA is not eager for people to know they never wrote the required health hazard evaluation of what actually happened on the cleanup.

Dr. Ott actually finds good news in all this.  She's made available growing evidence that there are real health hazards associated with oil. And we can change our ways -- we put these things into the environment, we can take them out. Learn more about the toxicity associated with oil. Find doctors who practice environmental medicine if you or someone you know have had long-term exposure to low levels of chemicals at home, at work, in traffic and even with pharmaceuticals. Analyze your own energy consumption so you can reduce it. Burn fewer lights. Heat and cool less. Find alternatives to fossil fuels while you wean yourself from them.

And finally, back to that ethical issue with the clean-up workers. Congress needs to step up to its responsibilities, Dr. Ott says. Oversight hearings are in order on the long-term health effects of oil to people and to the environment. It's the only way we can deal justly with those who cleaned up after the “EXXON Valdez.”  And it's the only way to prepare for the future.


[This Program was recorded January 28, 2005, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]

Conversation 1

Dr. Riki Ott describes democracy as a teeter-totter -- Congress at the fulcrum, industry on one side and the public on the other -- for Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. Concerned that people need to know how hazardous low levels of chemicals in the environment are, Dr. Ott reports that oil is much more toxic than we think.


Conversation 2

After recounting how the supertanker "EXXON Valdez" spilled millions of gallons of oil into the pristine Prince William Sound in Alaska in 1989, Dr. Ott recalls how she became a commercial fisher. Describing EXXON's monumental spill as the “environmental 9/11,” she outlines what has been learned from the catastrophe about exposure-related illnesses and what she calls a second tragedy -- destructive results to the entire ecosystem, including humans, of high-pressure hotwater washes.


Conversation 3

Fishrun collapses in 1992 and 1993 triggered fishermen to demand answers about the lingering damage to the fisheries. These demands resulted in 4 new scientific ecosystem studies over 8 years, Dr. Ott recalls. She describes her work providing bridges from technical journals to regular people who need to understand the considerable and continuing long-term effects of the spill on wildlife and to human health. She elaborates, explaining how and when oil is toxic.


Conversation 4

Don't buy from companies that don't express your values, Dr. Ott says, then describes how clean-up workers were super-exposed to oil, experiences similar to Gulf War veterans who inhaled fumes from burning oil fields. She lists a number of safety caveats she says EXXON was not telling clean-up workers. The implications of when oil and oil products are considered hazardous and when they are not are explored. Dr. Ott describes the new field of environmental medicine, then turns her attention to the public health threats of compounds known as PAHs. The good news is that we can reduce PAHs, she says, because more than 90% come from burning fossil fuels in cars and power generating plants.


Conversation 5

The popular version of the "EXXON Valdez" story is owned by Exxon, Dr. Ott acknowledges. The company's version of the story is that everything has recovered, she says, asserting that based on her study of potentially flawed statistics, that is not the case. She says there is a two-part covenant of silence: the company sealing supposedly public records and the government failing to enforce existing requirements.  She gives examples of what environmental medicine doctors say are negative effects of very low levels of chemicals in everyday life -- workplaces, schools, homes, traffic, petroleum-based pharmaceuticals -- as one's body slowly fills up with poisons, then manifests symptoms.


Conversation 6

Dr. Ott summarizes her recommendations for federal and state government, industry, academics and individuals.  Science has a responsibility to translate results so lay people can understand them, she insists. She urges individuals to become energy literate, to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, and to learn how oil is more toxic than previously thought.



In the same spirit that Rachel Carson sounded the alarm about pesticides in her classic Silent Spring, Riki Ott calls us all to look more closely at the effects of oil on living creatures. We thank her for her courage, perseverance and commitment to making the world safer for all.

We also thank the Laura Turner Seydel and Amanda Leesburg for bringing Dr. Ott both to our attention and to our recording session.

Related Links:

Sound Truth and Corporate Myth$: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill is published by Dragonfly Sisters Press.

For more about oil and about Dr. Ott, including her tour schedule, visit her website.

Robert Kennedy, Jr. argues that corporations using their political power to despoil our environment are doing the same to our democracy.

In American Theocracy Kevin Phillips is unequivocal about the damage done to America by the unconstrained power of big oil, and Exxon is the biggest.

Co-founder of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, Jerry Greenfield says that corporations can be both economically successful and socially responsible.

Giving corporations the same rights as citizens, says Thom Hartmann, has undermined America politically and economically.

Both energy expert Amory Lovins and Earth Day co-founder Denis Hayes describe practical ways to substantially reduce our depence on oil.

Educator and author David Orr argues that the permanent legacy of environmental destruction we are passing to our descendants is a form of slavery.  ("If Jefferson were here now, Jefferson would agree, I think, that no generation, no culture, no society and no institution, has the right to change the bio-geo-chemical cycles of the earth or impair the stability and integrity and beauty of biotic systems, the consequences of which will inevitably fall in a kind of irrevocable, remote tyranny on future generations. That's slavery.")

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